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Iran threatens to resume high-level uranium enrichment amid US sanctions

Iran's cabinet members, President Hassan Rouhani and Ali Akbar Salehi, during a meeting. (Hamed Malekpour/Tasnim News Agency)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani has said Tehran will resume high-level enrichment of uranium if world powers do not protect its interests against U.S. sanctions.

Rohani’s remarks were made in an address to the nation aired by state television on May 8, the anniversary of President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from a landmark nuclear agreement.

Rohani said the remaining signatories of the accord – Britain, France, Germany, China, and Russia – have 60 days to take measures to protect Iran’s oil and banking sectors.

Rohani has written to the leaders of the five countries, saying Iran will start reducing some of its commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal and will no longer export enriched uranium and heavy water to other nations as stipulated in the accord.

Earlier on May 8, Iranian state media reported that the letters have been delivered to the ambassadors of the five nations.

“If the five countries join negotiations and help Iran to reach its benefits in the fields of oil and banking, Iran will return to its commitments according to the nuclear deal,” Rohani said.

However, Rohani warned of a “strong reaction” if European leaders instead sought to impose more sanctions on Iran via the UN Security Council. He did not elaborate.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also tweeted that, “After a year of patience, Iran stops measures that [the United States] has made impossible to continue.”

World powers have “a narrowing window to reverse this,” Zarif added.

The nuclear deal limits Iran to enriching uranium to 3.67 percent, which can fuel a commercial nuclear power plant. Weapons-grade uranium needs to be enriched to around 90 percent. Iran has previously enriched to 20 percent. Once a country enriches uranium to around 20 percent, scientists say the time needed to reach 90 percent is halved.

Following Rohani’s speech, the European signatories of the deal — France, Germany, and Britain — urged Iran to uphold the nuclear pact and said they want to keep the Iran deal alive.

French Defense Minister Florence Parly warned that if Iran did not keep its commitments, then the question of triggering a mechanism that could lead to sanctions would be on the table.

In Berlin, the office of German Chancellor Angela Merkel said: “We as Europeans, as Germans, will play our part and we expect full implementation from Iran as well.”

Britain said Iran would face consequences if it backed away from the pact.

“Today’s announcement from Tehran is…an unwelcome step,” junior Foreign Office minister Mark Field told Britain’s Parliament. “We are not at this stage talking about reimposing sanctions, but one has to remember that they were, of course, lifted in exchange for the nuclear restrictions.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the United States was responsible for the crisis.

“The U.S. is to blame for the situation and it makes it difficult for both Iran to fulfill its obligations and…for the general state of the nuclear nonproliferation regime,” Lavrov said in Moscow after a meeting with Zarif on May 8.

Speaking in a joint press conference with Lavrov, Zarif insisted that Iran’s latest decision did not violate the agreement and asserted it was provoked by U.S. actions toward Iran.

Zarif pointed out that Iran will uphold its obligations if European signatories to the deal uphold theirs.

China called on parties to uphold the deal, saying “maintaining and implementing the comprehensive agreement is the shared responsibility of all parties.”

“We call on all relevant parties to exercise restraint, strengthen dialogue, and avoid escalating tensions,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a regular press briefing on May 8.

He added that China “resolutely opposes” unilateral U.S. sanctions against Iran.

The 2015 nuclear pact, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), provided Iran with relief from sanctions in return for curbs on its nuclear program.

But the deal was thrown into flux when Trump announced the U.S. pullout in May 2018, arguing it was flawed because it did not include curbs on Iran’s development of ballistic missiles or Tehran’s support for proxies in the Middle East.

Washington also reinstated sweeping sanctions that have badly hit the Iranian economy.

Despite the U.S. moves, Tehran has continued to comply with the terms of the deal, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN watchdog charged with monitoring Iran’s nuclear activity.

European backers of the deal have been trying to salvage the agreement, but Tehran has complained that the process was too slow.

Tensions between Tehran and Washington have risen since the U.S. withdrawal, and the United States has recently raised the pressure on Iran.

Last month, the U.S. administration announced it would not extend waivers allowing importers to buy Iranian oil without facing U.S. sanctions, in an attempt to reduce Iran’s oil exports to zero.

And White House national-security adviser John Bolton on May 5 announced the deployment of an aircraft carrier battle group to the Middle East in response to a number of “troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” from Iran.

On May 7, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an unannounced visit to Baghdad, where he met with Iraqi officials to discuss Washington’s concerns amid what he called “escalating” Iranian activity.

The U.S. intelligence was “very specific” about “attacks that were imminent,” Pompeo said in Baghdad, but didn’t provide details.